Elaine Showalter Essay - Critical Essays

Showalter, Elaine


Elaine Showalter 1941-

American critic, nonfiction writer, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Showalter's career through 2003.

One of America's foremost academic literary scholars, Showalter is renowned for her pioneering feminist studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century female authors and her provocative cultural analysis of women's oppression in the history of psychiatry. In her influential book A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (1977), Showalter advanced a new form of feminist literary theory under the term “gynocriticism,” offering an alternative framework for the interpretation of women's literary history. Likewise, in works such as The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (1985) and Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (1997), Showalter forged the branch of feminist criticism known as “hystory,” an attempt to reinterpret and redefine the pejorative notion of women's hysteria as embodied in literary and social history. Showalter's contributions to feminist criticism and women's studies have helped influence the canon of British and American literature, bringing new visibility and legitimacy to often forgotten or under-appreciated female authors.

Biographical Information

Showalter was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1941 to parents Paul Cottler and Violet Rottenberg Cottler. Though he never finished grammar school, Showalter's immigrant father was a successful wool merchant. Showalter's mother completed high school but remained at home in the role of housewife. Showalter chose to attend Bryn Mawr College against the wishes of her parents who both disapproved of their daughter's intellectual leanings and educational ambitions. Nonetheless, Showalter completed her bachelor's degree in English at Bryn Mawr in 1962 and subsequently pursued graduate studies in English at Brandeis University. Her parents also objected to her engagement to English Showalter, a French scholar, who was not Jewish. When Showalter began her graduate work at Brandeis, her parents stopped supporting her financially, and after she married Showalter in 1963, they disowned her. Showalter completed her master's degree in English at Brandeis in 1964 and embarked upon her doctoral studies at the University of California at Davis, where her husband had taken a teaching appointment in the French department. In 1970, after starting a family and moving to Princeton University, where her husband had accepted a faculty position, Showalter received her doctorate in English from UC Davis and was hired as an assistant professor at Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Jersey. In the late 1960s, she became active in the new women's movement and served as president of the Princeton chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1969. Her involvement in NOW brought her into contact with other emerging feminist leaders, most notably feminist literary scholar Kate Millett and feminist art historian Linda Nochlin. During this early period of activism, Showalter edited Women's Liberation and Literature (1971) and published A Literature of Their Own, her first major work of literary scholarship. While at Douglass, she moved from assistant professor to associate professor in 1974, and became a full professor of English in 1983. She also served as a visiting professor of English and women's studies at the University of Delaware between 1976 and 1977. During this period, she received several important fellowships, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 1977 and a Rockefeller humanities fellowship in 1981. In 1984 Showalter left Douglass for Princeton University, where she accepted a position as a professor of English and was later named the Avalon Professor of Humanities. She has worked as an editor for several feminist scholarly journals and publishers, including Women's Studies, Signs, the Feminist Press, and Virago Press. A member of the Modern Language Association (MLA), Showalter served on its Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession from 1971 to 1972 and as the organization's president from 1998 to 1999. Showalter has also worked as a freelance journalist in both the print and broadcast media.

Major Works

Among the founding scholars of feminist literary criticism and women's studies in America, Showalter broke new ground in the 1970s by creating a progressive literary theory known as “gynocriticism.” Unlike traditional literary criticism, gynocriticism focused on the “history, themes, genres, and structures of literature by women,” seeking to create a method of analyzing literature written by women and to develop models of interpretation based on female experience, rather than adapting male interpretive theories and models. Putting her theory into practice, Showalter edited the anthology Women's Liberation and Literature, consisting of excerpts from works considered essential to feminist literary study, such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House. In A Literature of Their Own, a revision and elaboration of her doctoral dissertation, Showalter rebukes the unfair critical standards applied to the work of English women writers in the nineteenth century and contends that, as a result, female artists paid a terrible price for their creative work in terms of guilt, self-loathing, and frustrated effort. Showalter divides the evolution of women's writing into three phases—“feminine,” from 1840 to the death of George Eliot in 1880; “feminist,” from 1880 to 1920, the date of female suffrage in America; and “female,” from 1920 to the present. Between 1975 and 1981, Showalter published three essays in academic journals that, taken together with A Literature of Their Own, form the foundation of her literary critical outlook and have become major tenets of American feminist literary criticism. The first, “Literary Criticism” (1975), published in the journal Signs, discusses two approaches to feminist criticism—feminist critique, which examines the anti-female biases of traditional readings and literary canons; and feminist reevaluation of women writers considered to be minor figures, as they represent the idea of a historical female subculture. Showalter's next seminal essay, “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” was originally published in Mary Jacobus's anthology Women Writing and Writing about Women (1979). In this piece, Showalter introduced the term “gynocritics” and demonstrated its efficacy with a feminist critique of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge and its male-centered critical interpretations. In the third essay, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness” (1981), originally published in the journal Critical Inquiry, Showalter used the female cultural analysis developed by Oxford anthropologists Shirley and Edwin Ardner to argue that women form a muted group within the dominant male culture, a group whose reality and culture overlap with those of the dominant culture, but is not contained within it. She further maintained that women's writing constitutes a “double-voiced discourse that always embodies the social, literary, and cultural heritages of both the muted and the dominant.”

As editor of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory (1985), Showalter brought together one of the most comprehensive collections of feminist literary theory and criticism to date, including examples of French feminism, gynocriticism, and African-American and lesbian feminist criticism. Showalter subsequently published Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing (1991), a critical counterpart to A Literature of Their Own, in which she traces the development of American women's writing through a wide-ranging literary survey and close studies of Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, and various gothic forms of women's writing from the 1960s. In the mid-1980s, Showalter extended her critical outlook from literary criticism to cultural history, focusing on embedded conceptions of mental health and the expression of sexual issues in terms of gender. In The Female Malady, a study of the sexual politics of British psychiatric history, Showalter argued that a feminization of madness occurred in the nineteenth century, and that women became the primary recipients of psychiatric treatment, serving as the cultural exemplars of insanity. She further maintained that until the late 1970s, psychiatry treated women in the confining context of “femininity,” which was largely responsible for their psychological demoralization. Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle (1990) presents a literary and cultural analysis of the corresponding millennial crises of the 1890s and the 1990s, particularly as evident in the anxiety wrought by female sexual liberation and the corresponding scourges of syphilis and AIDS, and expressed in homoerotic elements of male adventure fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson and Rider Haggard, and late-twentieth-century films. Showalter returned to the subject of mental health in Hystories, in which she examines a variety of mysterious afflictions that emerged during the 1980s and 1990s, including chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf War syndrome, alien abductions, and recovered memories of sexual abuse. Turning a skeptical eye to these ambiguous epidemics, Showalter asserts that all are psychosomatic conditions that reflect a proliferation of mass hysteria, amplified by widespread communication media and millennial anxiety. Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage (2000) presents a survey of various “feminist icons,” a broad label that Showalter affixes to intellectuals such as Wollstonecraft, Fuller, Eleanor Marx, and Simone de Beauvoir as well as contemporary celebrity figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Diana, Princess of Wales. Showalter has also edited Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle (1993), an anthology of women's writings from the late-nineteenth century, and Scribbling Women: Short Stories by Nineteenth-Century American Women (1997), a collection of short stories by nineteenth-century American women, both of which seek to introduce readers to the work of previously obscure or underrated female authors.

Critical Reception

Showalter has been widely appreciated by critics for her prodigious knowledge, insightful analysis, and accessible prose. Most feminist literary scholars have lauded her achievement in helping to legitimize and further develop feminist critique, particularly by reevaluating the social and historical context within which women's writing is studied. However, some critics have contended that Showalter's reach often exceeds her grasp, faulting her for raising provocative questions and presenting a wealth of material without analyzing it, or trying unsuccessfully to force-fit her usually expansive subject matter into a rigid critical context. Others have criticized Showalter for omitting or glossing over women writers who do not fit neatly into her thesis or analytical construct. In addition, some reviewers have objected to Showalter's literary biases, especially in regards to the Victorian era, and her dubious psychoanalytic assumptions. Showalter's works of cultural history, particularly The Female Malady and Sexual Anarchy, have received mixed reviews, but have been generally praised for their broad, interdisciplinary approach to literary, cultural, and social trends. Showalter's feminist history of psychiatry in The Female Malady has been commended for raising disturbing and important questions about the politics of interpretation and the power of gender as a determining factor in psychiatric treatment. Her focus on the psychiatric patient—rather than the history of the psychiatric profession—has also been viewed as a valuable contribution to the subject. However, some reviewers have faulted Showalter for her selective use of data and statistics, and her imprecise use of key terms, such as “hysteria.” In later works such as Hystories and Inventing Herself, critics have hailed Showalter's impressive synthesis of evidence, though some have found her arguments less substantial and convincing than in previous works. Despite such shortcomings, Showalter has been highly regarded for calling attention to complex issues surrounding gender and sexual politics. Many of her works, most notably A Literature of Their Own and The Female Malady, have endured as staples of feminist literary criticism in university curricula.

Principal Works

Women's Liberation and Literature [editor] (criticism) 1971

A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (nonfiction) 1977

These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties [editor] (essays) 1978

The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980 (criticism) 1985

The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory [editor] (criticism) 1985

Alternative Alcott [editor] (criticism) 1988

Speaking of Gender [editor] (criticism) 1989

Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the...

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Marcia Landy (review date winter 1977-1978)

SOURCE: Landy, Marcia. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Modern Fiction Studies 23, no. 4 (winter 1977-1978): 637-45.

[In the following excerpt, Landy praises Showalter's broad historical analysis of female authors in A Literature of Their Own, but criticizes her tendency to offer unsympathetic, overly negative judgments of individual writers.]

Two of the four books reviewed here are distinguished by new and challenging critical methodologies, and two are not. Gabriel Josipovici's edited collection of essays on the modern novel reveals a primarily structuralist and linguistic...

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Daniel J. Cahill (review date winter 1978)

SOURCE: Cahill, Daniel J. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. World Literature Today 52, no. 1 (winter 1978): 114-15.

[In the following review, Cahill praises the range and the scope of material in A Literature of Their Own, noting that the work “change the content and perspective of literary history as it is currently taught in our colleges and universities.”]

The truly significant accomplishment of A Literature of Their Own is the creation of a new perceptual framework, an accurate and systematic literary history for women writers in the British tradition. In the most...

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Agate Nesaule Krouse (review date spring 1978)

SOURCE: Krouse, Agate Nesaule. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Criticism 20, no. 2 (spring 1978): 216-18.

[In the following excerpt, Krouse compliments Showalter's examination of “the female literary tradition” in A Literature of Their Own, but finds fault with Showalter's treatment of twentieth-century writers, including Virginia Woolf.]

Only recently have critics become fully aware that knowledge about women writers and therefore literary history itself is fragmentary and biased. Innumerable articles and some books from a feminist perspective have reinterpreted the...

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Tom Paulin (review date 21 July 1978)

SOURCE: Paulin, Tom. “Fugitive Spirits.” New Statesman 96, no. 2470 (21 July 1978): 94.

[In the following excerpt, Paulin offers a negative assessment of A Literature of Their Own, arguing that the work makes a “snobbish mockery of Women's Liberation.”]

Those Victorian photographs of bearded patriarchs flanked by their unsmiling families may seem merely quaint to us nowadays, but it's important to remember how they were once the agents of hideously formidable cultural tyranny. As Gloria Fromm shows in her long, loving biography of Dorothy Richardson, the effort to escape the domination of ‘masculine culture’ involved an intense struggle against a...

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Vineta Colby (review date February 1980)

SOURCE: Colby, Vineta. Review of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing, by Elaine Showalter. Modern Philology 77, no. 3 (February 1980): 357-60.

[In the following review, Colby praises the range of material covered in A Literature of Their Own, but criticizes Showalter's assertions about Victorian feminism and her analysis of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot.]

A Literature of Their Own is by far the best account yet published of the emergence of the feminine sensibility in the English novel. It documents with sound research and reasoned, if sometimes controversial, theory a subject that too many writers in...

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Catherine Belsey (review date 28 March 1986)

SOURCE: Belsey, Catherine. “The Work of Womankind.” New Statesman 111, no. 2870 (28 March 1986): 24-5.

[In the following review of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, Belsey examines the differences between American and British feminist criticism and asserts that more attention should be paid to the social construction of women's reality rather than to promoting a gender-inclusive “populist” canon.]

Feminist criticism has come of age. Eighteen years on from Mary Ellman's Thinking about Women, these two collections of essays are elegant, accomplished and quite free from the (tomboyish?) high spirits that antagonised...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (review date 28 April 1986)

SOURCE: Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “Crazy Ladies?” New Republic 194, no. 17 (28 April 1986): 34-6.

[In the following review, Spacks commends Showalter's extensive knowledge and detailed accounts of psychiatric abuses in The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, but finds shortcomings in Showalter's myopic thesis and oversimplified interpretations.]

Uncovering the sexual politics of British psychiatric history, Elaine Showalter tells an often lurid, sometimes blackly comic, usually surprising story [in The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980,] that raises disturbing questions. England has a distinctive...

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Nancy Scheper-Hughes (review date 1987)

SOURCE: Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter. Women's Studies 13, no. 4 (1987): 390-96.

[In the following review, Scheper-Hughes praises the “original and exciting” subject material in The Female Malady, despite citing flaws in Showalter's analysis of schizophrenia.]

Foucault's brilliant social history of western madness [Madness and Civilization, 1967] opens with a compelling image, Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschiff, the “ship of fools”, in order to fix in the reader's mind a picture of madness as it was prior to the “Enlightenment” when the...

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Linda Kauffman (review date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Kauffman, Linda. Review of The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, by Elaine Showalter. Signs 12, no. 2 (winter 1987): 405-09.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffman offers a positive assessment of The New Feminist Criticism, but notes that the collection lacks any substantial analysis of film and French feminism.]

The great danger to avoid is the self-isolating nature of critical discourse.

[Jean Starobinski]

“Literature” is what gets taught.

[Roland Barthes]

These four...

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Nancy Tomes (review date February 1987)

SOURCE: Tomes, Nancy. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by Elaine Showalter. American Historical Review 92, no. 1 (February 1987): 131-32.

[In the following review of The Female Malady, Tomes commends Showalter's provocative cultural analysis, but finds shortcomings in her exaggerated premise and flawed historical interpretation of women's psychiatric treatment.]

[In The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980,] Elaine Showalter, a feminist literary critic, has set out to write a “feminist history of psychiatry and a cultural history of madness as a female malady” (p. 5)....

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Dierdre Bair (review date 2 September 1990)

SOURCE: Bair, Dierdre. “End-of-the-Century Birth Throes.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 September 1990): 12.

[In the following review, Bair praises Showalter's amusing and informative discussions in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle.]

Elaine Showalter is a distinguished feminist critic whose new book, Sexual Anarchy, is a provocative comparison of the last years of the 19th Century (the fin de siècle) with the final decade of our own. Her view is optimistic, as she chooses to view the 1990s as “the embryonic stirrings of a new order, a future that is utopian rather than apocalyptic.” She soundly rejects the idea that our...

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Julie Wheelwright (review date 29 March 1991)

SOURCE: Wheelwright, Julie. “Odd Women.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 144 (29 March 1991): 29-30.

[In the following review, Wheelwright lauds the “fundamental questions” raised by Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, but notes that the work focuses too heavily on the Victorian era.]

The final decades of a century often spawn apocalyptic fantasies, doom-sayers and outlandish prophets. Like the anti-nuclear scientists' vision of the world at “two minutes to mid-night”, we fear that time, for our species, is not only finite, but rapidly running out. If death by chemical warfare or terrorist sabotage during the Gulf war wasn't...

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Sara Maitland (review date 6 April 1991)

SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “The Way They Were Then, Too.” Spectator 266, no. 8491 (6 April 1991): 28.

[In the following review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, Maitland finds shortcomings in Showalter's emphasis on popular male, rather than female, writers and her premature effort to draw parallels between the 1890s and the 1990s.]

I am a fan of Elaine Showalter's, and have been since A Literature of Their Own—a study of women writers, particularly novelists, through the 19th century up until the creation of the present phase of the Women's Liberation Movement. I am a fan because she seems to have read everything and her...

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Pamela Young (review date 20 May 1991)

SOURCE: Young, Pamela. “A New Sexual Order.” Maclean's 104, no. 20 (20 May 1991): 68.

[In the following review, Young praises Showalter's central arguments in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, calling the work “provocative” and “eloquent.”]

The twilight of the 20th century is deepening beneath an overcast sky. In the current era of AIDS, economic decline and environmental decay, it is perhaps natural to wonder whether the world is plunging into unending night. In an intriguing new book, Elaine Showalter, head of English at Princeton University, points out that the same dire speculation shadowed the last two decades of the 19th...

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Helen Carr (review date 27 September 1991)

SOURCE: Carr, Helen. “Patchwork Quilt.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 170 (27 September 1991): 54.

[In the following review, Carr compliments Showalter's research and analysis in Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, but faults Showalter's romanticized notion of female community and virtue.]

Sister's Choice is, so to speak, the American sister of Elaine Showalter's first book, A Literature of Their Own, which traced a distinctive literary tradition through British women writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her argument then was that women formed a subculture, and their writing had to be interpreted like that...

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Florence Boos (review date November 1991)

SOURCE: Boos, Florence. “The Anatomy of Culture.” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 2 (November 1991): 26-7.

[In the following excerpt, Boos lauds Showalter's “eclectic virtuosity” in Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle but finds shortcomings in her ambiguous use of the term “anarchy” and her treatment of class issues and AIDS.]

Each of these three books treats late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century attitudes towards women's sexuality, health and physical capacities. All three focus on men's more than women's actions and beliefs, document repellent forms of sexist and gynophobic regimentation with horrific examples and note...

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Hermione Lee (review date 15 November 1991)

SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “Separate Spheres and Common Threads.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4624 (15 November 1991): 8.

[In the following review, Lee offers a negative assessment of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing.]

This is a friendly title, [Sister's Choice,] and it comes in a positive red colour, with a bold quilt-pattern design, because “Sister's Choice” is the name of the quilt made by Celie and Shug in The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and the quilt is an emblem, Elaine Showalter says, of “a universalist, interracial, and intertextual tradition”. In deliberately selecting a title from a non-literary and...

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Elizabeth Shannon (review date 6 December 1991)

SOURCE: Shannon, Elizabeth. Review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, by Elaine Showalter. Commonweal 118, no. 21 (6 December 1991): 728.

[In the following review, Shannon offers high praise for Showalter's scholarly examination of “social, sexual, and political attitudes” in Sexual Anarchy.]

There is one book I especially want to recommend this year, Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle. Showalter is both engaging and scholarly in comparing social, sexual, and political attitudes prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century to our own fin de siècle. The parallels she discusses...

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Nina Baym (review date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Baym, Nina. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. American Literature 64, no. 3 (spring 1992): 629-30.

[In the following review, Baym compliments the structure and subject material of Sister's Choice.]

From its dust jacket illustration of a quilt block to a final chapter on quilting, this book takes “piecing”—women's creation of patterned art from snips of available fabric—as the metaphor for American women's writing. The book itself is artfully pieced, inserting four previously published essays between two each of four Clarendon Lectures delivered in 1989. This elegant congruence of...

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Brenda Foglio Lyons (review date October 1992)

SOURCE: Lyons, Brenda Foglio. “American Patchwork.” Essays in Criticism 42, no. 4 (October 1992): 338-44.

[In the following review, Lyons argues that Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing is an inconsistent and incomplete, though entertaining, literary history of American women's writing.]

The notion of being simultaneously inside and outside patriarchy and its institutional processes is a feminist ideological construct that has achieved the status of mainstream cliché. Titles by French writers have surfaced which name this borderline as a discursive subject: Inside by Hélène Cixous, which won the Prix Medicis in...

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Susan Fraiman (review date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Fraiman, Susan. Review of Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin-de-Siècle, by Elaine Showalter. Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 12, no. 1 (spring 1993): 119-22.

[In the following excerpt, Fraiman praises Sexual Anarchy for its “gripping” examination of such works as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ann Ardis's New Women, New Novels.]

At the center of Elaine Showalter's gripping study of the fin de siècle is a reading of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I cannot help appropriating this duo to figure the relation between Ann Ardis's upbeat, brightly lit New...

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Andrea Stuart (review date 18 June 1993)

SOURCE: Stuart, Andrea. “Missing Links.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 257 (18 June 1993): 38.

[In the following review, Stuart offers a generally positive assessment of Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle.]

Elaine Showalter has made something of a literary cottage industry out of the angst and alienation of the fin-de-siècle. In her book The Female Malady, she turned the tables on the men of knowledge who spent so long dissecting “the woman problem” in lieu of confronting their own anxieties. And in Sexual Anarchy, she explored the fears that stalked the psyches of those nervy Wildean decadents and their brittle...

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Chris Baldick (review date 3 September 1993)

SOURCE: Baldick, Chris. “Secular Variations.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4718 (3 September 1993): 20-1.

[In the following excerpt, Baldick praises Showalter's exploration of the fin-de-siècle in Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle.]

Like the widow in Wilde's play whose hair has turned gold with grief, the study of the last century's Nineties sports an unseemly glow of prosperity. Nothing flourishes quite like decadence, and productivity is booming in the languor industry. The shiny new conference centre at Warwick University accommodates symposia on world-weariness, while publishers look forward to issuing fresh volumes on...

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Elaine Hedges (review date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Hedges, Elaine. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. Signs 19, no. 2 (winter 1994): 507-11.

[In the following excerpt, Hedges criticizes Sister's Choice, drawing attention to Showalter's historically inaccurate understanding of quiltmaking.]

Of the three authors whose books are reviewed here, Cheryl Walker and Elaine Showalter bring to their material familiar feminist critical approaches. Lev Raphael, in contrast, offers a new critical methodology—one, he argues, that will provide “revolutionary insights into human motivation” (322), but that feminists concerned with issues of...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Navina Krishna Hooker (review date May 1994)

SOURCE: Hooker, Navina Krishna. Review of Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, by Elaine Showalter. Review of English Studies 45, no. 178 (May 1994): 288-90.

[In the following review, Hooker commends the variety of questions that Showalter raises in Sister's Choice, but notes minor flaws in Showalter's “untimely polemics.”]

Elaine Showalter's Sister's Choice grapples with the problem of first identifying and then adequately describing a philosophical and aesthetic framework that links the work of major American women writers from Fuller onwards. The question is an important and challenging one, for it addresses a...

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Todd Gitlin (review date 27 April 1997)

SOURCE: Gitlin, Todd. “Millennial Mumbo Jumbo.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 April 1997): 8.

[In the following excerpt, Gitlin commends Showalter's cultural analysis of texts and fads in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, but finds shortcomings in her selective approach and tendency toward “ultra-Freudian logic.”]

Headlong passion was always said to be female, while men, even as they lost their heads, were supposed to be cool. Throughout history, men have been the accusers, diagnosticians and judges, women the witches, patients and victims. Today, allegations of satanic abuse, extraterrestrial abduction, multiple personality and...

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Frederick Crews (review date 12 May 1997)

SOURCE: Crews, Frederick. “Keeping Us In Hysterics.” New Republic 216, no. 19 (12 May 1997): 35-8, 40-3.

[In the following review, Crews argues that Showalter “builds no conceptual bridge” between her topics in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, noting that Showalter's arguments are weak and poorly supported.]

For over a decade now, the object of keenest interest within American interdisciplinary scholarship has been a disease, and a possibly nonexistent one. As Elaine Showalter, Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, puts it near the outset of her own latest contribution to the field [Hystories:...

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Mark S. Micale (review date 16 May 1997)

SOURCE: Micale, Mark S. “Strange Signs of the Times.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4911 (16 May 1997): 6-7.

[In the following review, Micale praises Showalter's examination of feminine hysteria in Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.]

The ritualized self-immolation of thirty-nine members of the Heaven's Gate sect near San Diego, California, late last March could almost be seen as a promotional event for Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, Elaine Showalter's provocative and immensely readable new book. Showalter examines a series of large-scale functional psychopathologies, originating in the United States but now...

(The entire section is 3201 words.)

Melissa Benn (review date 13 June 1997)

SOURCE: Benn, Melissa. “Out of Control?” New Statesman 126, no. 4338 (13 June 1997): 48.

[In the following review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, Benn commends the “impressive clarity” of Showalter's discussion, but finds flaws in her presumptuous assertions about the nature of mysterious new afflictions.]

It is rare for a book of cultural criticism to make so much real world trouble. But Elaine Showalter, professor of English at Princeton University and a television critic, has provoked outraged reactions in the US with [Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture,] even to the point of death threats. A male friend...

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Steve Sailer (review date 1 September 1997)

SOURCE: Sailer, Steve. “Hysteria, His and Hers.” National Review 49, no. 16 (1 September 1997): 48-50.

[In the following review, Sailer contends that Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture is a “sensible but limited book” as a result of Showalter's rationalist feminist perspective.]

Sometimes you get what you ask for. Back in 1985 Elaine Showalter, a Princeton English professor specializing in the social history of mental health, concluded her critique of the traditional psychotherapy profession by proclaiming: “The best hope for the future is the feminist therapy movement.” By 1997, the mental-health industry has become thoroughly...

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Taner Edis and Amy Sue Bix (review date September-October 1997)

SOURCE: Edis, Taner, and Amy Sue Bix. “Tales of Hysteria.” Skeptical Inquirer 21, no. 5 (September-October 1997): 52-3.

[In the following review, Edis and Bix offer a positive assessment of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, but note flaws in Showalter's exaggeration of medieval millennial panic, her defense of psychoanalysis, and her premature dismissal of chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome.]

We skeptics do more these days than shake our heads at psychics or roll our eyes at UFO-abduction tales. Because postmodern humanities scholars seem out to drag science down, the Skeptical Inquirer keeps tabs on relativist philosophers,...

(The entire section is 1292 words.)

Virginia T. Bemis (review date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Bemis, Virginia T. Review of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, by Elaine Showalter. NWSA Journal 10, no. 1 (spring 1998): 172-73.

[In the following review of Hystories, Bemis commends Showalter's historical overview of psychoanalytic theory, but objects to her “Eurocentric” view of millennial panic and her generalized, dismissive treatment of chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome.]

Controversial books relating to Women's Studies reach the shelves fairly regularly. Some are picked up by the mass media, land their authors on the talk-show circuit, and occasion much debate outside the standard academic circles. In the past few...

(The entire section is 729 words.)

Deirdre English (review date 11 June 2001)

SOURCE: English, Deirdre. “Wollstonecraft to Lady Di.” Nation 272, no. 23 (11 June 2001): 44-9.

[In the following review, English lauds the central themes of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, complimenting the unlikely parallels that Showalter creates between the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Diana, Princess of Wales.]

Here we go, starting on what promises to be a pleasantly engrossing tour of the landmarks of three centuries of Anglo-American intellectual feminism, guided by a seriously impressive scholar, Elaine Showalter of Princeton University. Showalter is the erudite author of some classic feminist literary texts and a...

(The entire section is 4611 words.)

Kathryn Hughes (review date 18 June 2001)

SOURCE: Hughes, Kathryn. “Holding the Middle Ground.” New Statesman 130, no. 4542 (18 June 2001): 52-3.

[In the following review of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, Hughes praises Showalter's accessible writing style, but criticizes her methodology and diluted analysis.]

When Elaine Showalter published A Literature of Their Own in 1977, it was a revelation and a celebration all in one. In her characteristically fluent prose, she suggested that British women's writing in the 19th and 20th centuries (her bookends were the Brontës and Doris Lessing) had been systematically sidelined, obscured and trivialised. Now here was...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

Sara Maitland (review date 30 June 2001)

SOURCE: Maitland, Sara. “Oprah Winfrey Joins Diana, Princess of Wales.” Spectator 286, no. 9021 (30 June 2001): 44.

[In the following review, Maitland argues that Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage suffers from a lack of thematic focus and overall “trivial” subject material.]

Something has gone wildly awry with [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage]. I am bemused. I am especially bemused because I am an Elaine Showalter fan. Over many years and generous books she has opened up aspects of feminist ‘critical theory’ (both literary and cultural) to a wider audience by the elegance and readability...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Brenda Wineapple (review date July 2001)

SOURCE: Wineapple, Brenda. “Unparalleled Lives.” Women's Review of Books 18, nos. 10-11 (July 2001): 34-5.

[In the following review, Wineapple offers a generally favorable assessment of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage.]

Everybody's doing it: in the fourteenth century Boccaccio did it in tales of 106 famous women that extol their dominion and inventiveness—as well as some more predictable virtues, like long-suffering patience. (They've just been freshly translated by Virginia Brown and republished by Harvard.) More recently Phyllis Rose did it in her slim collection, Writing of Women (1985), and Susan Ware did it in her...

(The entire section is 1696 words.)

Hermione Lee (review date 10 August 2001)

SOURCE: Lee, Hermione. “Rule-breakers Rule.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5132 (10 August 2001): 22.

[In the following review, Lee commends Showalter's “energetic and opinionated” arguments in Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage.]

“Life stories retain their power when theories fade.” So Elaine Showalter claims at the start of her book of energetic and opinionated “claiming”, [Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage,] turning her back on feminist literary criticism and social history in favour of a collection of potted biographies of notable women. These are not, as she explains, the standard...

(The entire section is 2119 words.)

David Nokes (review date 25 January 2003)

SOURCE: Nokes, David. “Classics in the Classroom.” Spectator 291, no. 9103 (25 January 2003): 48-9.

[In the following review, Nokes criticizes Teaching Literature, arguing that Showalter fails to present “any serious or settled argument about the nature of teaching English.”]

There comes a time when all professors of literature think of writing a book like this [Teaching Literature]. Elaine Showalter has been professing it for 40 years, and after such a long and varied career what could be more apposite or timely than to share the wisdom of such experience with her younger colleagues? The answer, I fear, is much. She should have been gently...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Further Reading


Cohen, David. “Gullibility Is Catching.” New Scientist 154, no. 2086 (14 June 1997): 45.

Cohen offers a positive assessment of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.

Cott, Nancy F. “A Canon of One's Own.” American Prospect 12, no. 10 (4 June 2001): 46-7.

Cott offers a mixed assessment of Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, concluding that Showalter's “idiosyncratic book” may appeal to the general reader but not to scholars.

Harris, Ruth. Review of The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830-1980, by...

(The entire section is 565 words.)